Featured Photograph: St. Landry Parish Courthouse pictured in about 1942.
Carola Lillie Hartley
Publisher and Contributing Writer
Opelousas is a small town with a BIG story to tell!
And there are many chapters to that story. One chapter is centered on Opelousas as the seat of Imperial St. Landry Parish, with many stories focused around the parish courthouse. Three of those stories are about the courthouse, the courthouse bell and the courthouse artwork. The following is just a fragment of what is known.
St. Landry Parish Courthouse Building
On March 31, 1807, Governor William C.C. Claiborne signed legislation creating St Landry Parish. Opelousas was named as the seat of the parish. In 1806 the first courthouse and jail were built on a square that would eventually become the center of the town. As the parish grew a larger courthouse was needed. In 1822 a brick courthouse building was erected to serve the growing parish and town.
Parish records indicate the 1820’s courthouse was replaced in 1847 by a more substantial two-story, frame structure flanked by two outbuildings housing the District Clerk and the Recorder’s offices. That courthouse is one that is often discussed in our state’s history since it served for a few months as the temporary state capitol of Louisiana’s confederate government in 1862.
In1886 just as a major refurbishment was being planned on the 1847 courthouse building, a large fire on March 22, 1886, destroyed that courthouse. A short time later a Victorian-style courthouse replaced the ashen remains and served the parish needs for five decades. It was demolished in 1938 to make room for a new courthouse.
In 1939 the fifth and final grey-stone structure was constructed on that same square in the center of downtown Opelousas. It opened for business in 1940. Today it stands as the home of Imperial St. Landry Parish in the heart of Opelousas, the parish seat. It was entered into the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Opelousas National Historic District in 1989.
The Courthouse Bell
In 1806 when the first St. Landry Parish courthouse was constructed in Opelousas, a large bell was put in the building to serve the public. It was a means of communication.
The bell was used to notify local citizens about important events and activities in the community, and to inform them of some danger in the town. When a new courthouse replaced an old one, the bell was moved to the new building.
Why did the bell tool?
- It tolled for a fire, using a code of signals with the number of rings letting firefighters and citizens know where the fire was located.
- It tolled to summon lawyers to court so they would be on time.
- It tolled to let people know a jury had reached a decision in an important trial,
- It tolled when those convicted received a sentence.
- It tolled to announce the start of meetings for the St. Landry Parish Police Jury, the Opelousas Board of Police and later for the Opelousas Town Council.
- It tolled to warn the community that there was bad weather in the area.
- It tolled to announce the beginning of a curfew when it was ordered.
- It tolled in the evenings of some years to announce the closing of downtown businesses.
- And it tolled for special occasions, events and activities.
So, that bell was very important to the Opelousas community.
The present bell that we see today was installed in the courthouse built in 1886. It is made of pure copper, weighs over 1,000 pounds, and was produced in 1886 by the Baltimore, Maryland Bell Foundry. The bell was installed in the new 1886 Opelousas courthouse and remained on the top floor until that old building was demolished in 1938.
During that year, the courthouse bell was removed and place on the courthouse square, where it remained until the new courthouse was completed, and opened in 1940.
For eight decades the bell continued to toll for communication purposes until the 1970s.
After that it was not used very much but remained on the top floor of the present courthouse until last year when it was moved and eventually located on the Courthouse Square where we see it today.
Hopefully it will now be used more for decades to come, and perhaps, even tolled at noon each day.
Have you ever entered the St. Landry Parish Courthouse from Court Street? If so, did you notice the beautiful artwork adorning that entry? That artwork is gorgeous and something we should know about and appreciate. It was created by an internationally known woman artist over eighty years ago. Her name was Angela Gregory, and she is a notable 20th century American woman sculptor.
Her artwork on the Court Street entrance to the courthouse was created over eighty years ago. This is what we know about this Louisiana sculptor, the first noted woman sculptor in the state:
- Angela Gregory was born in New Orleans on October 18, 1903. She died on February 19, 1990, in New Orleans where she is buried.
- Gregory created the St. Landry Parish Courthouse art pieces in 1939-40 at her studio in New Orleans.
- The works were installed on the SLP courthouse in 1940, just before the building opened.
- Gregory has artwork around Louisiana, other states and other countries.
- Gregory’s work on our courthouse makes the building special since it is one of only two buildings in Acadiana that has her work. The only other one is the art center in the old bank building in downtown Lafayette.
- More information on the life of Angela Gregory can be found in a book on her life that was recently released, a documentary about her was shown last year on LPB, and recent articles on her life were published in our local/area newspapers.
Tomorrow, Tuesday, September 19, 2023, is a special day for our parish and our town. The parish will be “honoring our history while preserving our future,” during a ceremony on the courthouse square celebrating three parts of the story that makes our historic Imperial St. Landry Parish special — the Courthouse building, the Courthouse bell and the Courthouse artwork of Angela Gregory. The public is invited to attend the program that starts at 10:00 am. Below is the invitation to that program.